The district has evolved rapidly, swapping native residents for international newcomers, but what draws them to the area — and could it be losing its allure?
Othman Al-Omeir, a Saudi citizen, moved into an apartment near the famous department store Harrods in 1993, believes that it has already done so.
Before the streets of Knightsbridge were lined with Middle Eastern cafes and the gridlock of expensive cars, it had a very different feel, he recalls. Now a British national, Al-Omeir has seen Knightsbridge change from the stomping ground of upper-class English socialites, to becoming what he refers to as “a republic of the Gulf.”
“Knightsbridge in 1993 was more English … you didn’t hear another language, even a European language … and then suddenly it became very international. Seldom would you see English people there, except for visitors,” he added.
He moved to London in the 1970s, first living in Golders Green, then Marylebone High Street, Chiswick, Richmond and eventually Knightsbridge, as he rode the property wave. He was simultaneously scaling the media industry, and he was to found the Arab world’s first online newspaper, Elaph.com, in 2001.
When he first arrived London’s the Arab population was mostly to be found around Edgware Road and Oxford Street, because “most Saudis were coming to London to study or for medication in Harley Street (near Oxford Street) … but then Arabs moved to Mayfair … and then to Knightsbridge.”
Al-Omeir moved into Knightsbridge for reasons that are as relevant today as they were decades back: “The beauty of Knightsbridge is that it never changes from an architectural point of view. You can go to the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum), the Royal Albert Hall, many museums … and you have Hyde Park for walking. It’s an amazing place, and, of course, you are a neighbor of Her Majesty (the Queen of England) … who is not more than a thousand meters away.”
But change was looming for the refined London borough, and Al-Omeir first started noticing it in 2006. “Knightsbridge faced a kind of revolution … the Arabic cafes, shops and restaurants started opening up. You could see groups of Gulf Arabs walking around together.
“Knightsbridge then became a republic of the Gulf. You feel (as if you are) in the heart of Riyadh, Beirut or Dubai. It didn’t work for me for one reason: I enjoy being in London. If I want to go to the Middle East, I’ll go to the Middle East.”
The changes, the shops, the cafes, the people, the summer influx, the shisha smoking, the transformation into Little Arabia… it was all too much for Al-Omeir.
“When I came to London, I wanted to live in London, among Londoners,” he told Arab News. So, after 25 years in the area, he moved on. The media owner now lives in a stunning new-build block on the Strand, an area close to his cherished Fleet Street, once the center of the UK’s newspaper industry, back in “proper London.”
But Little Arabia is still popular with Gulf Arabs and is likely to remain so.
“What makes Knightsbridge so popular is the luxury ambiance the area brings from its high-end stores, brands and fine dining,” Adnan H. Omar, the CEO and editor-in-chief of Arabisk London Magazine, told Arab News.
“Also, I think it is fine to say that people, more often than not, like to surround themselves with their community, and in this case, Knightsbridge is that location,” Omar added.
But would he live in Knightsbridge?
“Personally, I would not reside in Knightsbridge, it feels more of a commercial and tourist area rather than a homely neighborhood,” Omar said.
Al-Omeir the best time to visit Knightsbridge is in winter, avoiding the summer’s supercar season, a sentiment most Londoners would be likely to agree with. However, as last summer’s supercar season was underwhelming, according to local café staff, it’s possible that Little Arabia may now be returning to quieter times.